A Eulogy for One of the Greatest Sports Sponsorships of All Time, and Speculation of What’s to Come…

By Emma Katovitz, Senior Manager of Client Services, Interbrand

Over the past few days, our social media feeds have been full of images of a certain golfer clad in a red shirt and black pants. There are several iterations of the image and of the outfit. There are action shots. There are turtlenecks. There are trophies. Most iconic, there is a single fist thrust in the air at the exact moment of victory.

These images evoke collective memories – of impossible putts somehow pausing then disappearing into the hole, of a meteoric rise to greatness, and of green jackets and big smiles. For many of us, the collective memories are also tied to personal ones with their own unique meaning and significance.

The photos elicit emotional responses – something only the very best marketing achieves. There is no doubt that the culmination of the 27-year-old partnership between this golfer and the company that made the red shirts marks the end of an era.

Almost instantly upon Tiger Woods’ and Nike’s announcement of their decision to part ways, the world demanded to know: what’s next? What brand will dare to follow such a legendary act? As Woods writes what is expected to be the final chapter in his golf career, who will he pick to help him articulate and amplify the story?

To answer these questions, we must take stock of key changes we have seen in the 27 years since Nike took a big bet on a 20-year-old Stanford dropout. To start, the role brands play in today’s world is drastically different. In 1996, brands functioned primarily to differentiate goods and drive business. However, in the years that followed (in no small part thanks to marketing by the likes of Nike), brands have become acts of leadership, allowing individuals and companies alike to signal what they value and what they stand for through the brands they choose to interact with.

Because of this, the ethos of a brand’s chosen ambassador is crucial. In predicting his next move, we must consider Tiger Woods’ unique ethos and interrogate what he stands for today. He’s no longer the up-and-coming superstar of the “Hello World” campaign, or the established leader of 2014’s “Ripple” spot. But, there is much about Woods that remains constant. The quiet confidence and polished manners that inspired the “Hello World” campaign are still present, as is the critically acclaimed and flawlessly executed swing from “Swing Portrait”. Woods has also taken on new roles, and may yet expand to more.

News broke this weekend of trademark filings suggesting an upcoming partnership with TaylorMade. While a logical next step (Woods has played with TaylorMade clubs since 2016, when Nike limited its golf offering to apparel alone), I have to root against it. There is very little Woods can accomplish with this pureplay golf brand he has not already done with Nike, leaving this TaylorMade partnership doomed to live in the shadows of the one it seeks to follow.

With all of this in mind, I have three aspirations of what could be next for Woods:

Greyson Clothiers
Charlie Woods, Tiger’s 15-year-old son, is rumored to have signed with Greyson Clothiers, a Detroit-based golf apparel brand. From their first PNC tournament together in 2020, Tiger and Charlie Woods have stolen the hearts of golfing fans and kept us on the edges of our seats, wondering how far Charlie will follow his old man’s footsteps.

Describing its brand, the Greyson website reads, “The juxtaposition of technical performance and refined sophistication lies at the core of the brand DNA.” With his all-time great swing and characteristic charisma and style, Tiger Woods embodies this DNA. The sponsorship of both father and son carries the short-term advantage of dressing Tiger Woods through the end of his career as a player, as well as the longer-term advantage of dressing Charlie as he comes of age. Further, the father/son angle represents one Nike never capitalized on.

Apple TV
Some – myself included – would call Cable TV a dying medium. Recognizing this, we’ve seen Apple consistently double down on its streaming service, Apple TV. Most recently its strategy has included an expansion into sports with the launch of the MLS pass. Many credit the success of this offering to MLS’s most famous player, Lionel Messi.

Should Apple opt to build on this momentum in the sports world, golf could be the next step. If so, Woods could bring the star power to a golf offering that Messi brought to soccer. This potential partnership also carries a longtail opportunity beyond Woods’ retirement as a player. He has the combination of eloquence, personality, and deep understanding of the game to make a first-rate announcer, and it’s hard to imagine his extensive fanbase passing on the opportunity to watch him narrate a tournament (regardless of price premium).

Ralph Lauren
Few brands do Americana better than Ralph Lauren. The retailer’s aesthetic subtly blends so much of what Americans hold dear. A partner of the United States Olympic Committee since 2008, Ralph Lauren has long played into the American love of sport.

I don’t envision a partnership between Ralph Lauren and Tiger Woods as a big bet on the RLX golf line, but rather a large-scale partnership that would elevate Woods as the face of the brand, acknowledging that Woods’ celebrity now extends far beyond the golf course.

Woods has teased an announcement may be coming at next month’s Genesis Invitational. Even with the TaylorMade rumblings, I remain on the edge of my seat to see which direction he goes.